SAN BERNARDINO – Jurors recommended the death penalty for Rickie Fowler, who was found guilty last month for setting the devastating Old Fire in 2003 that claimed five lives.
Having been convicted of first-degree murder in five deaths, plus two counts of arson, the jurors’ recommendation of the death penalty was given to Judge Michael A. Smith on Friday morning. It took 11 days to deliberate over a three-week span. The jury included eight women and four men.
During the penalty phase of the trial, Deputy District Attorney Robert Bulloch presented witnesses that described the criminal history of Fowler, 31, which included beating a pregnant ex-girlfriend, raping a former girlfriend, burglary and a meat-cleaver attack on a woman and her dog. While in jail awaiting trial, Fowler, indicted in 2009, was also convicted of raping a cellmate.
Defense attorney Michael Belter countered with Fowler’s upbringing, seeking leniency for a man who was brought up in an abusive environment, then turned into a career criminal.
The five victims, who all died by heart attacks during the fire, were men: Robert Taylor, 54, Charles Cunningham, 93, and James McDermith, 70, each of San Bernardino; along with Chad Williams, 70, of Crestline; and Ralph McWilliams, 67, of Cedar Glen.
The Old Fire, which lasted for nine days, destroyed more than 1,000 structures in the San Bernardino mountains, burned 91,000 acres, and used resources that totaled in $38 million. It had been set near the intersection of Waterman Canyon Road and Highway 18 on Oct. 25, 2003, one of about a dozen fires that raged throughout Southern California at the time. Some 70,000 people were evacuated from 29 communities during the fire, many of whom lost their homes.
CrimeVoice: Old Fire Arsonist Now Faces Death Penalty